Pro Cheerleaders: Integral Brand Ambassadors Or Outdated Entertainers?

July 11, 2018

During the past several years, there have been a wave of lawsuits from NFL cheerleaders and NBA dancers over fair compensation and restrictive codes of conduct. And this year, several NFL cheerleaders filed discrimination and harassment claims. It’s set off a debate. Are cheerleaders and dancers important extensions of a brand? Or unnecessary relics of the past?

As a retired NBA dancer (yes, retired is the right word — I had a retirement party and everything), this is a question that is dear to me. And while I won’t address the topics of the lawsuits, I do have thoughts on the role pro cheerleaders and dancers play in game-day experience.

As an experiential marketer, I know full well the importance of people who bring brands to life through consumer interaction. These are the people who are on the front lines, the ones who engage directly with consumers. I don’t know that there are many more important roles in consumer programs. And I think cheerleaders and dancers should be given that respect.

In defense of the women who serve in these roles, think of it this way. It’s human nature to want to be among the elite in an endeavor. Any endeavor. Whether it’s becoming president of a company or winning a blue ribbon at the state fair, pushing yourself to make it to the top of a competitive category is a healthy thing. And when you make it to the top, the excitement, adrenaline and sense of accomplishment is gratifying.

During my time as a NBA dancer, I grew more as a person and leader than in any other pursuit. Sure, I often got comments like, “You don’t fit the stereotype, you’re smart,” or “Aren’t you a feminist?” Fair questions. Ones I would have asked myself if I hadn’t been on the inside. But my reality was that being a dancer made me a part of a network of exceptional women who pursued excellence in all aspects of their lives. My peers were lawyers, mothers, nurses and business owners, all of whom had the same drive to be the best in everything they pursued, dance included.

But that’s my experience. On the outside, it’s easy to see why aspects of pro cheerleading can seem exploitative and objectifying, further contrasted by the growing number of women who are being promoted into more prominent roles in major sports leagues. Yet despite this progress, often the most visible roles for women require them to wear spandex shorts and appear in bikini calendars.

As a dancer, from day one, we were trained to understand our role in the franchise. We were a living, breathing extension of the brand. Or in other words, a brand ambassador. While brand ambassadors can mean a lot of things, in professional sports it means speaking, looking and living in a way consistent with brand values. All interactions with fans — from game night to charity appearances to social media to life outside the arena — needed to provide an authentic brand experience. That was our job. And we did it extremely well.

In 2011, a group of us traveled to Madrid as a part of the NBA 5 United Tour, meeting thousands of fans and performing for a week in one of the coolest cities.

Now the term brand ambassador can mean a lot of different things, but in the experiential world, brand ambassadors are the temporary team you hire to enhance or staff an activation. Similar to casting, you can hire people with specific skills, appearance and experience to ensure you are bringing your brand’s persona to life. From the clothes they wear to the messaging they deliver, brand ambassadors have the power to significantly help or hurt your brand.

Unfortunately, brand ambassadors are often hired as an afterthought, seen as just another task on a planning checklist, with the most cost-effective and convenient solution winning out. But face-to-face interaction is what experiential is all about, so without a trained, authentic representative to interact with consumers (i.e. someone who actually loves your brand), the experience can lack the very element that will make it shine.

I have a hard time imagining a world where fans don’t have the chance to interact in real life with representatives of their favorite NFL and NBA teams. Dancers, cheerleaders, mascots, stunt teams and other members of game-day entertainment provide these opportunities and without them, the fan experience would be less sparkly.

At Fast Horse, we’re intentional about hiring brand ambassadors who not only love our client’s brand, but reflect the diverse and unique audiences they serve. As the power (and the dollars) of female consumers continues to increase in the sports marketplace, it seems a critical time to evolve pro sports game-day entertainment. I’d start by allowing men on cheer and dance teams. Think about it. Men have just as much right to participate in these elite roles as women. Why shouldn’t they serve as brand ambassadors in this way? It would make for better entertainment.

As I look at my own dance-dominated Instagram feed, most of the content I’m mesmerized by is from talented groups of men and women, doing the exact same thing you see at the sidelines of a NFL or NBA game. We’re long past due to bring a fuller array of talent to the stage and give fans an experience that reflects the diversity of the beautiful world we live in.